Inside The NAACP's Civil War Over Charter Schools

Leaders of the nation's oldest civil rights group say that members are being paid by right-wing groups to infiltrate the organization and sow chaos.
Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, addresses the organization at its national convention in July 2019.
Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, addresses the organization at its national convention in July 2019.
JEFF KOWALSKY via Getty Images

When three local NAACP branches in California passed April resolutions opposing the national group’s call for a charter school moratorium, school choice advocates greeted the news with glee. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos voiced her support in an interview. The Wall Street Journal published a flattering editorial about the move, describing it as a welcome “revolt.”

But leaders at the California state NAACP say this so-called “revolt” is fake news. They say the main member who pushed these actions ― a woman named Christina Laster ― is being paid by a right-wing group connected to the Koch brothers to infiltrate the organization and sow chaos. They also note that, despite the media attention, these resolutions were dead on arrival at the national organization for failure to follow proper submission protocol or rejection by higher committees.

In July, California leadership asked the national NAACP to initiate an investigation into the three branches ― Southwest Riverside, San Diego and San Bernardino ― and their leaders’ motivations.

“It’s definitely a funded and deliberate effort to try and do a hostile takeover,” said Rick Callender, the second vice president for the California Hawaii NAACP.

Laster, on the other hand, denies the accusations and says she has been bullied by organizational leaders for simply expressing her opinion and representing the voice of local members.

They felt I was creating division to make it seem like we were breaking away as an organization. But it wasn’t that at all,” Laster, education chair of the Southwest Riverside branch, told HuffPost. “It was my desire to bring to the forefront what works and what doesn’t work.”

The NAACP ― the nation’s oldest civil rights organization ― passed a national resolution in October 2016 calling for a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools. The resolution came out of the San Jose branch and made its way through multiple committees to get passed by national. The resolution was controversial at the time, but in some ways was a harbinger of a new liberal resistance to charters, a type of public school that is privately operated.

Since that time, charter schools ― once a bipartisan cause ― have faced more resistance. In California, legislators have introduced a series of bills designed to roll back the growth of charters, including a now-failed bill that called for a statewide moratorium. At the national level, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has cited the NAACP’s call for a moratorium when unveiling his own anti-charter education plan.

From the start, the NAACP’s stance was polarizing. About 26% of charter school students are black, and polls show that these schools are moderately popular among black Democrats.

Then, in April, internal dissent was formalized when the three California branches passed local resolutions opposing the national stance.

Christina Laster is photographed at the NAACP's 2019 national convention in Detroit.
Christina Laster is photographed at the NAACP's 2019 national convention in Detroit.
Courtesy of Christina Laster

Laster became the face of this dissent, telling the LA School Report, “By us coming out with the resolution, people can be aware that the moratorium is not helping our kids.” Laster stayed in the press even though the resolution from her branch languished, writing op-eds about her support for charter schools and getting quoted about NAACP issues.

From the start, Laster’s place of employment made her a source of suspicion.

Laster works for the California Policy Center, a conservative think tank that’s an affiliate of the State Policy Network. According to a 2012 report from the Center for Media and Democracy, the State Policy Network is a main driver of legislation created by the pro-business American Legislative Exchange Counsel and has deep ties to Charles and David Koch, the energy billionaires who spend vast sums of money to promote conservative causes and candidates. The California Policy Center is dedicated to pushing education reform causes, with a focus on beating back the state’s teachers union. The group has been behind a number of lawsuits designed to hurt unions’ bottom lines.

Laster serves as president of the Inland Empire and San Diego Parent Union, a project of the organization.

Callender believes that Laster was sent to join the NAACP by her employer to try and do a “public relations hack job.”

But Laster said her employer didn’t even know she was involved with the NAACP until she brought it up, months into the job.

Will Swaim, president of the California Policy Center, also insisted she was a member of the NAACP before she “found us,” and dismissed the group’s allegation as a “conspiracy theory.”

However, a January blog post on the center’s website characterized Laster’s school choice advocacy as the CPC “teaming up” with the NAACP.

The employment histories of members in other branches, too, have raised eyebrows. Kamaal Martin, an officer in the San Diego branch, works for the California Charter Schools Association as a regional director, according to the organization’s website.

“These are people on the payroll of charter school associations and payroll of organizations that are trying to attack the greatest civil rights organization in the U.S.”

- Rick Callender, California Hawaii NAACP

To NAACP leaders, this makes Martin’s motives dubious. He did not respond to requests for comment.

“These are people on the payroll of charter school associations and payroll of organizations that are trying to attack the greatest civil rights organization in the U.S.,” said Callender.

But Laster has long been supportive of school choice. She home-schooled her now-adult children. Until recently, her youngest son and grandson attended district schools, but they faced racist discipline, she said. She recently moved her grandson into a charter school, hopeful that it might serve him better.

She has watched district schools fail black students for decades, she says, arguing: How could anyone blame her for wanting better?

She speculates that the NAACP is merely doing the bidding of the state teachers union, the California Teachers Association, and insinuates that NAACP leadership are the ones getting paid off. Joette Spencer Campbell, who was involved in the San Bernardino branch resolution, echoed the sentiment, telling HuffPost via email, “That corrupt culture is why [California] state NAACP leadership is so quick to falsely accuse their own branches of being paid-off.”

Callender said he finds the accusations absurd, noting that the NAACP “has connections to everybody,” not just the union.

The California Teachers Association did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Still, disagreements between Laster and state leaders have continually gotten ugly and spilled out into public.

In a blog entry Laster wrote for the Education Post in July, she made multiple accusations against NAACP leaders. She said they had sent her threatening letters and suspended her from her post as education chair, only to reinstate her when she pushed back. Most damningly, she claimed members were assigned to monitor her at a recent lobby day in Sacramento, and these members even followed her into the bathroom.

Callender says none of this is true and that her claims, especially that she was followed into the bathroom, sound “like a level of paranoia that is unreasonable and very strange.”

“The bottom line is she is being paid to try and manipulate the NAACP, and we’re volunteers trying to do the right thing for the community,” he said.

Now Laster is unsure of her future with the civil rights group. She attended the group’s recent national convention, but says she found it hostile and uncomfortable. Behind the scenes, though, she says she has received silent support from members all over the country.

Members of “the older generation have come to me and said, ‘Christina, you’re doing the right thing, we’re proud of you,’” said Laster. “They tell me, ‘Keep going. We didn’t know what had happened to our organization.’”

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